Detritus of revolution

Nthikeng Mohlele’s novel Small Things (2013) provides a rejoinder to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), depicting a black man’s perspective on the failures of South Africa’s transition.

Karoo, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Image credit Fiver Locker via Flickr CC.

The South African writer Nthikeng Mohlele garnered wide attention last year for his novel Michael K (2018), a revisiting of J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983), which received the Booker Prize and firmly established Coetzee’s reputation in the South African canon following his earlier achievement, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Mohlele’s novel is in part an homage of influence—Coetzee has supported Mohlele’s work through cover endorsements, and Mohlele has expressed his admiration for Coetzee in interviews. But Michael K is also a critique of the limitations of Coetzee’s characterization of the mute figure of K, a coloured man who is caught amid a civil war in a reimagined apartheid-era South Africa. Like The Meursault Investigation (2015), a reworking of Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942) by the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, Michael K gives voice to a fictional character in a way that mutually enlivens both novels through a literary dialogue that crosses identities, generations, and time periods.

Mohlele’s project of reimagination further encourages a rereading of his earlier work. His second novel Small Things (2013)—he has published six so far—in particular can be read in retrospect as another response to Coetzee, albeit in a more indirect fashion. More specifically, it can be approached as a rejoinder to Disgrace (1999), Coetzee’s allegorical account of white male privilege and its delegitimation in post-apartheid South Africa. In the latter novel, as soon as the reader finishes the title page, one encounters the main protagonist David Lurie consorting with a prostitute—Coetzee’s work, it should be said, possesses moments of the bleakest humor—with Lurie’s status and life unraveling from there. After engaging in a non-consensual relationship with a student and losing his academic post, he moves to the Eastern Cape to live with his adult daughter, Lucy, on her farm. This temporary retreat is disrupted by an act of violence—Lucy is raped by assailants who ultimately go unpunished—and Lurie, who once took advantage of the unspoken rules of academia, now finds himself the victim of an unwritten set of laws in rural South Africa. At the end of the book, with no home, no sense of justice, and no future, Lurie is left without the possibility of redemption, with what remaining sense of humanity he has expressed through his care of dogs that are destined to be euthanized. Coetzee’s novel presses the question of where the limits of sympathy lie, eliciting the reader to address whether such parameters are to be determined in a present political moment, or whether they reside within an ethics located more deeply in the human condition.

Mohlele’s novel offers a number of surface contrasts, but in different ways approaches a similar set of questions to that of Coetzee. In Small Things the unnamed black narrator—and, thus, an everyman in Mohlele’s usage—is the same generation as Lurie, born at the time of apartheid’s birth and that era henceforth shaping his life and outlook as a result. He attends a mission school, resides in and witnesses the demolition of Sophiatown, and becomes a political journalist, which leads to a period of imprisonment. At a certain level, these are familiar points of orientation. However, Mohlele’s narrative becomes more interesting when it reaches the recent past. His protagonist, now older and hardened by his time in activism and incarceration, finds himself adrift in Johannesburg—an existential condition in the wake of political transformation that approximates Lurie’s, although not one due to his own immoral behavior but, rather, the growing immorality of post-apartheid South African society. Flush with cash and with wealth inequality motivating spectacles of fortune and criminal behavior alike, the Johannesburg of Mohlele’s imagination has no time for social reflection or the past. As he writes, there are “two Johannesburgs—one for vagabonds and the other for senior executives … In this other Johannesburg, the one of plush, air-conditioned cars, the revolution is without the slightest meaning.”

These circumstances leave Mohlele’s protagonist a lost figure. Indeed, the long middle section that depicts this predicament is entitled “Nausea,” a seeming reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel of the same name. Unlike David Lurie, whose status and privilege were unearned and whose fate goes unmourned, if not vocally celebrated either, Mohlele makes a different argument about post-apartheid futures and more particularly, how those who participated directly in the struggle have not been beneficiaries of a new dispensation. “Is eighteen years that long, that existence seems to be turned on its head?” Mohlele’s main character ruminates. “Or is it aftershocks of prison life that have slowed me, all those weeks in solitary confinement when it mattered not whether time moved or didn’t? Everyone in this city seems programmed to be in a hurry, to hop on the speed train to nowhere.”

As in Disgrace, the story in Small Things has an act of violence placed midway, serving neither as a climax nor a conclusion, but nonetheless rupturing the narrative in a way that reshapes what came before and what comes after. It is an act of violence both universal and specific to the “new” South Africa. Mohlele’s unnamed narrator recuperates by way of a relationship with a younger woman, Mercedes, by learning to play the trumpet, and, at one point, by caring for a dog, Benito, in a way that Lurie would appreciate. But these circumstances, too, gradually evaporate, with Mercedes leaving, Benito returned to his original owner, and Mohlele’s protagonist finding himself homeless during a Johannesburg winter. He recovers slightly, finding work as a waiter in a restaurant and living with the boyfriend of an ex-lover, Desiree, though both situations accent what he has lost and will never have again.

Small Things and Disgrace both touch upon universal themes of aging and loss, the promise of change and the impossibilities of redemption. The fates unfolded in both novels are unique, but they share common ground regarding ordinary lives under post-revolutionary conditions. They point to how such lives can become human detritus in the face of an ever-moving futurism, a destiny even among those who committed their lives to such change. Mohlele glosses a Fanonian view on such matters—how, paradoxically, only elites benefit from political revolution—but a more meaningful message comes through in a letter to Mohlele’s protagonist from Mercedes, who returned to Cuba from where her family originated. “You should have come here,” she writes, “You would have loved Cuba and its contradictions—our outdated American cars, desperate people dying, drowning en route to becoming Cuban Americans. Fleeing from a revolution that yielded small things: aging sugar-cane plantations and rum distilleries. Socialism. Phew!”

The title expression appears in this instance, and it recurs at several points in the novel, including near the start and in the conclusion. Mohlele’s fixation on these words invokes a provisional source of personal rehabilitation, if not quite redemption, through which the concrete details of ordinary life can provide a source of explanation and meaning when larger dreams and transformations prove to be illusory. Desiree, whom Mohlele’s central character falls in love with during his youth, ends up in a coma toward the end of the novel, a symbol of how the passions and ambitions of the past can eventually become unreachable—both impossible to communicate with and powerless to restore once more to complete health. In this, Small Things imparts a complex vision of ideas and feelings about post-apartheid South Africa as captured by Mohlele, one that is irreducible to words like revolution, or disgrace.

Further Reading

Like family

An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.

Exile, Return, Home?

Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.